Yee-haw! Let's fly on a CRJ 200 - Photo: Johnny Nguyen

Yee-haw! Let’s fly on a CRJ 200 – Photo: John Nguyen

Most of the stories you see that I post on AirlineReporter are those of grand adventures flying around the world in business class cabins. Not a bad gig. Every so often, I get people who seem quite upset that we do not write more economy reviews. “How about do reviews of cabins that most of us can fly in?!” I get that. I really do. First off, we do actually write quite a few economy reviews, and even I throw some out there when I see an interesting angle. This doesn’t mean that I don’t fly economy. I do… a lot.

When flying personally, I always fly economy (I paid $50 to upgrade to first class on Alaska Airlines once). I am not a person with means (shocking that blogging is not the best way to become rich), and I have no status with any airline or alliance. Heck, when airlines are flying me to a U.S. gateway airport to take a business class flight, 90% of the time I am flying in economy. Seattle to New York, Washington DC, LA, and even Miami — all in economy. And, oh boy, Miami.

The Seattle to Miami flight is the longest 737 flight in the continental U.S. and I have done it eight times in the last two years — all in the back of the plane. Do not get me wrong — I still enjoy flying and being flown in economy to take an epic flight is surely worth it. It’s just that I have lots and lots of miles in economy seats, but rarely write about them. Why? Well… they are kind of the same: boring.

I get some pretty awesome flights, but not all of them are

I get some pretty awesome flights, but not all of them are

ECONOMY REVIEW: The Background

I used to be a long-time subscriber of Car and Drive magazine. I didn’t get excited to read the new Geo Metro or Ford Taurus review. I wanted to see what won out between the Dodge Viper, Porsche 911, and the Corvette. I know what it is like to drive the econo cars, but I don’t know what it is like to drive the cool ones. Economy is not the Ferrari… it is the Honda Accord (what I drive, actually).

Plus, the difference between U.S. domestic economy is not as wide as that of international business class. When we have written a review, there aren’t many new angles to do on future flights. But let me try something. Over the last few years, I have put in more economy miles than I want to think about and let me try to do one review that sort of combines all of them. I can’t promise it will be exciting, but it might look familiar. Here we go!

Fancy economy, with in-seat entertainment.

Fancy economy, with in-seat entertainment

ECONOMY REVIEW: Ticketing My Flight

Where to even look? It can be a full-time job trying to find the best deals out there. I tried not to spend too much time searching. Just checked a few sites to compare prices and time and then booked directly at the airline’s website. I went in to select my seat and all that was left were middle seats. Highly unlikely. I booked six months in advance and I am sure there were other seats open. Sure, the airline allowed me to pay an extra $85 for a “premium” seat (i.e. a few more inches of legroom and free booze — although I wasn’t going to be drinking during my 7:00 am flight). Since my ticket was $325 to begin with, I went with the free middle seat. It took me a good 30 minutes to get through the purchasing process since the website crashed twice. Once I purchased the ticket, it took two hours for me to get a confirmation email with my confirmation code and I was set.

Good 'ol 737

Good ol’ 737

ECONOMY REVIEW: Day of Flight

After I purchased my ticket, I kept going online to see if a window or aisle seat opened up. Nothing did. So, I checked in via the app and realized that my TSA PreCheck was not showing on my boarding pass. Oh hell no. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had been having really bad security lines (60+ min). Luckily, I was able to catch the airline via Twitter and they added my Known Traveler Number to my reservation. I had to re-check-in four more times, but finally it showed up on my ticket.

I arrived to the airport two hours early, but it only took me 15 minutes to get through the PreCheck line. On my way to the gate, I looked at the seats again — wow, look at all those open window seats now. Tricky airline, trying to get me to pay. 29F, back of the plane, but not in a middle seat. The real fun part — the flight was completely full, and the airline wouldn’t let people make aisle/window seat assignments until the last minute.

My ticket said that I board in “Zone B.” Heck if I knew what that meant. One airline I was B13, another I was in Zone 3, another I was row 15, and another seemed like a free-for-all. Random letters mean little to me anymore in knowing when I will actually board, but figured “B” is a low letter, so should be quick right?

Before boarding process started, we started getting yelled at about gate checking bags. Almost threatening-like. “YOUR BAG WILL NOT FIT, IF IT DOES NOT FIT, IT WILL BE BURNED. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD, GATE CHECK YOUR BAG NOW.” Nope. I am not going to let that happen. I was going to fight for overheadbin space — I was Zone B after all, right? Suckers board in later zones!

I hung around the gate (making sure not to block anyone and not be that annoying “gate lice”). First pre-boarding (kids and people needing help). Then first class. Then about 23 levels of premium people; quartz, frankincense, myrrh, bronze premium, and uber diamonds dipped in platinum, sprinkled with unicorn tears. I kid you not, over half the people were already boarded by the time they got to Zone A. This is when I realized that there were only two zones: A and B. It was game-on to have space for my bag. I am not overly aggressive, but close enough to not be last. When Zone B was called, I was about the 10th person back. Then… hurry up and wait.

Huge back-up in the jetway and it would be another 15 minutes before I found my seat. I was sweaty from anxiety about space for my bag, but there was plenty of room left — sweet. Oh. Guess who sat next to me. Imagine the worst passenger possible (large, talkative, sweaty, smells, etc) — that’s them. It didn’t help that the air was not going and we were delayed. And then delayed. Then pushed back — but that darn taxiway was jammed and delayed again. Good thing I had the annoying seven-minute safety video that was cute the first time I saw it, but not the 27th to watch.

Interior of the MD-83. Basic, but those seats actually look comfy.

3-2 layout of the MD-83 is loved by many

ECONOMY REVIEW: The flight

There was no in-seat entertainment or shared screens, although they did have WiFi. I was able to pay $58.34 to log on and was able to reach speeds up to 0.34mb/s download and 0.01mb/s for upload. I could send texts, and tweet out things without photos. No cat videos or photos though.

About 30 minutes into the flight, they started the drink service. I had a choice of Coke products, coffee, and juices. There were also either peanuts, a snackpack (aka trail mix with seven pieces of food in it), or pretzels. I went with a warm Diet Coke, poured over ice. I went baller and asked for the full can. I got it — with a dirty look like I was involved in some scam. I went with pretzels and they were a bit salty and did almost nothing to help with hunger, but eating them burned about three minutes of flight time.

Then. Um. Kind of just sat there. Either staring out the window, staring at the seat in front of me. Then we hit some turbulence and that was kind of cool. I went to read the in-flight magazine (I miss SkyMall) and read all of the interesting stories — I burned about another six minutes.

The Famous Southwest Airlines Peanuts & a hand delivered Soda - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter.com

Nomnom!

I decided to get some rest, put my head on the sidewall, and drifted to a nice 15 minutes of sleep before some kids screamed behind me. Then back to sleep to have the pilot tell me that the Durdangi Cliffs were out the left-hand side of the plane. Ugh. I do not care.

Back to sleep to have the person behind me grab my seatback as leverage when they were getting up to use the restroom. Sigh — forget it. I wanted to break out my laptop, but with doofus one next to me taking up my arm room, and doofus two in front of me who reclined — that wasn’t going to happen. Heck, I had a hard enough time surfing on my phone.

Shortly before landing, they came through one more time to offer some water, but were walking by so quickly I couldn’t even make eye contact with them to ask for any. One attendant “ran” through the cabin with 20 cups and only gave out three by the time she was in the back. Thanks.

Then we landed. Since I was in row 29, figured I could just sit tensely waiting for the plane to empty. It did. And I got off at my destination. That’s about it.

A Dreamliner can make economy better, but not always.

A Dreamliner can make economy better, but not always

ECONOMY REVIEW: Conclusion

Pretty darn exciting? Probably not too much. Really, this review could be used for quite a few of my recent economy flights. Not glamorous, and really more about getting me from one place to another. Of course flying is still cool, but it is nothing to write home about (or write a story on). Do not worry… if something interesting does come from one of my economy flights (I had no intention of writing this story, but it sort of happened), you will see it. Until then… I will enjoy my 4.5 hour economy flight I have coming up tomorrow and I bet it looks a lot like this story!

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EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER – SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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29 Comments

I thought the longest flight 737 flight in the world is from Frankfurt to Pune?

Possibly, but the MIA-SEA is the longest in the continental US. About six hours.

David | AirlineReporter

Jonathan in France

Shocked to read of your experience of buying a ticket. 30 minutes! On easyJet it takes 2 minutes and confirmation is instant. Including boarding pass downloaded to phone.

Of course not every time, but it seems that often forms error out or they aren’t clear and I spend way too long going through the process. Sure, partly user issues, but not like this it is my first rodeo :).

David | AirlineReporter

Joe Cullen

Hello David,

Thanks for the “funny” story about your recent economy flight. I haven’t flown anything but economy or single-class (shorthand for everybody gets to be miserable) for a very long time. I’d be afraid to fly business or first-class and be reminded that air travel used to be one of the highlights of a trip, even in the old pre-deregulation coach or tourist days. Anyway, we aren’t allowed to fly anything but economy when we travel on business. I recently had to fly economy on a domestic airline that is at the bottom of the list in customer satisfaction, and even though nothing actually went wrong the experience was pretty awful. Things could be worse…imagine what could happen if the airlines find a way to introduce “steerage” accommodations! My brother thinks the future of air travel may involve sedating passengers and packing them into personal travel apartments (shipping crates). You will only be allowed to bring as much stuff as will fit into your crate. Boarding will involve moving the “apartments” along a conveyor belt and stacking them inside the cabin. Cleaning the airplane will be easy…just hose down or replace the crates’ Teflon liners every few flights. All of the passengers will be well behaved because they have been tranquilized! Upgrades? No upgrades…everyone flies single-class. Discounts will be available if you can pack two kids into one crate! I probably shouldn’t put any of this into writing because it may give some airline executive an idea that this is a possibility. He will probably call it thinking outside the box…or crate. Sorry…”personal travel apartment”.

I got stuck in Portland recently when a spring snowstorm shut down Denver International and flights were being cancelled. I couldn’t get the aforementioned airline on the phone to find out what was happening with my flight and their website had conflicting information. I actually drove to the airport to speak directly with someone at their counter and nobody was there but angry passengers whose flights to Denver had been cancelled. I figured that was a sign that my late-night flight back to Denver was probably cancelled, too, and I started looking at options. A lot of people don’t like United Airlines but they came to my rescue. A very nice UA counter agent found space for me on a flight back to Denver the following day. It was an economy fare but I got a window seat on a clean, well-maintained A319 with a pleasant, professional cabin crew. It was of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a flight. The flight terminated with an amazingly smooth landing, which prompted one of the flight attendants to ask us to complement the captain on our way out. The captain, fully uniformed with jacket and cap, smiled at us as we deplaned and I was so happy with the flight that I thanked all of the crew.

Economy isn’t always awful. I know there isn’t a lot of legroom and you don’t get any frills, but I can read a book, sleep, or watch the landscape slip by beneath our wings. All I need is a window seat, a good flight crew, well-mannered fellow passengers, and an airline run professionally to make a flight enjoyable. Like all of the rest of the aviation geeks, I do love airplanes and I do love to fly from place-to-place. I am flying up to Seattle in June for an event at The Museum of Flight and I have already booked economy seats on a United Airlines flight! I have never had a bad flight on United Airlines, but I have read that David’s experiences with them seems to be the reverse. Go figure!

Joe Cullen
Denver, Colorado

Hey Joe!

There are the ULCCs (Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant) where you are likely to have a lower quality of experience, but your ticket price will be lower too. Then you are also going to have bad luck. Maybe get one of the old planes in the fleet or a grumpy flight crew.

Now with the sedation and crates — honestly, if I had to do another SEA-MIA-SEA in a matter of days, I think I would want that :).

David | AirlineReporter

Joe Cullen

David…

Oh, no…don’t even joke about thinking crates and tranquilizers being an option! I shouldn’t have even mentioned such a thing because it will start some kind of feasibility study. Did you see an article a little while back where some outfit was suggesting the use of saddles and overhead straps in place of seats on short flights? I recall a comment from someone at the FAA that said that would never be allowed in the USA. Really? Don’t give them any ideas!

I knew I was taking my chances flying on a ULCC when I went to Portland. I guess the experience wasn’t really all that awful. I imagine I will fly with them again sometime soon to broaden my own economy flight experiences.

Do you have a funny “that wasn’t really that bad” story about being stranded somewhere that you’d like to share with us? I would like to read anybody’s story about disrupted plans that had a silver lining.

Joe Cullen
Denver, CO

Hey Joe,

There are always the stories of passengers standing or straddling seats, but there are limits. The FAA mandates the number of seats for the number of exits and flight crew. And… I take the stance that if/when airlines do crazy things, they aren’t in a vacuum — if people are willing to save money and go with those crappy seats, they are creating the demand for them.

And a funny stranded story? Heh… no. I try to be as positive as I can about airlines, but being stranded is no fun and super annoying. However, it is the nature of the beast. With something so big and so complicated things will go wrong, but the vast majority of the time things go right. But yea… still sucks. Probably my worst experience: http://www.airlinereporter.com/2011/06/tornadoes-with-american/. Yes, it stemmed from bad weather, but American dropped the ball.

David | AirlineReporter

Joe Cullen

Hi David,

On, no…I have looked into the face of the enemy and it is me! No doubt, we consumers must take the blame for the cheap fares and the service that goes along with them. I sure wish there wasn’t such a big gap between economy and the next class up, but I know an airline can’t add an old-style “tourist” or “coach” class to the mix when so many people are willing to fly the current economy class.

Thanks for the link to your older story about being trapped in Dallas. That’s the kind of story that reminds me how interconnected everything is, and how screwed up things can get when there is trouble at one major airport. Your story makes me feel silly for complaining about my cancelled flight back to Denver when I was hardly inconvenienced at all.

Joe Cullen
Denver, CO

Peter Crew

Joe,,,,Thanks for the kind words on United, most of their people really do try hard to make the Airline the best….

Joe Cullen

Hi Peter,

I have met a lot of United employees, had a personal relationship with a few of them, and I can only remember one who was kind of hard to get along with. He was definitely an exception! I don’t know if you are associated with United or not, but I do like United Airlines. I guess you read the tale about my recent flight from Portland to Denver. Every United employee I ran across in Portland was friendly, as was the crew on my way home. I see where United is bringing back the “Fly the Friendly Skies” slogan, and I am looking forward to an upturn in the airline’s fortunes.

Joe Cullen
Denver, CO

Phoenix

sooooo was the airline WN or will it go unnamed?

I doubt it’s Southwest. I don’t think they have a nonstop between Seattle and Miami. I think Alaska is the only nonstop option. Too bad he didn’t like their customer service, as I love the airline and have had great experiences flying with them.

Joe Cullen

Hi Phoenix,

I’m embarrassed to say it was our hometown airline, known for pictures of animals on the tails of their airplanes. I know people that choose them for their low fares so I decided to give them a try, despite their poor reputation. It had been a very long time since I’d flown with them, and I used to fly with them a lot back in their 737 days. The flight from DEN to PDX started with noticing that none of their gate people in Denver were wearing anything that resembled a uniform. Boarding was a somewhat haphazard affair. I paid the extra $9.00 to get a window seat and was happy about that. You pay for everything extra on this airline. One passenger found out how serious they are about luggage fees when he tried to place his personal item in the overhead bin. It was not “carry on” and he had to put it under his seat despite the fact that there was plenty of room in the bins (a piece of “carry-on” will cost you an extra $35). I was in the tail on an A320 and knew it was going to be a little noisy, but I can sleep through most anything. The seats were awful and I’d never seen such a tiny fold-down tray. The flight was uneventful except for the beautiful views of Mount Hood and The Dalles…they didn’t charge me extra for that. I guess it was included in the cost of the window seat.

The flight back to Denver was cancelled, and I don’t feel they handled it very well. They did quickly refund the return fare, including the cost of all the extras, but the overall experience was poor. It was triggered by an unexpected storm, but they didn’t seem to have anything in place to handle the emergency.

By the way, I have flown WN a lot. I like the single-class idea where you don’t pay extra for luggage, but flights on WN feel like getting on a bus and trying to find a seat you like. I was on a ridiculously long one-stop, middle seat, Rochester-Denver WN flight that really did feel like riding a bus where they took out the seat padding and filled the cushions with rocks.

My trip to Portland was actually pretty memorable. I really like Portland’s airport. When my flight home was cancelled I ended up spending something like fifteen hours in their airport with a lot of others who were also stranded. I know fifteen hours is not a really long time, but this was the first time I ever had a flight cancelled and I decided to camp at the airport and see what that was like. There were lots of unused gates with very comfortable chairs, AC outlets, and free wi-fi. There was also a lot of different kinds of good restaurants run by really nice people. If I wanted I could have used Portland’s good light rail and public transportation system to get just about anywhere in the city. I imagine I will now be buried with horror stories about flight cancellations and refugee-camp conditions in airport terminals. I will believe the stories and I know I got off easy.

Well, I went off on a tangent. It was not WN that mishandled my cancelled flight. I think it would be interesting to have our friends at Airline Reporter write an article about camping at airports when flights get cancelled. Maybe they can produce a list of airports where they recommend having this happen. It would be a little weird to recommend such a thing. I have heard a lot of horror stories about being stranded, and would like to hear some “I wish I hadn’t been stuck there but we actually didn’t hate it” tales.

Joe Cullen
Denver, CO

It is all and it is none. This is really a combination of multiple airlines. I have flown Delta, American, United, Southwest, and Alaska all in economy across the US in the last nine months. Photos are used from older stories. There are bits and pieces that I pulled from a particular airline (like Zone B is really Zone 2 on Delta), but the point is you cannot really tell, since they are so similar!

David | AirlineReporter

OliverTwist

One of the best memories of flying in a long distance A320 was the red-eye flight from Washington, DC to Oakland, CA on JetBlue. Since my first transatlantic flight as a child, I could never be able to fully sleep during the flight. JetBlue was no exception. A rather portly but cheerful lady sat next to me and cycled endlessly through the serials or films. With interior lighting dimmed, her screen was glaring and distracting.

Feeling little bit more hungry and thirsty, I decided to walk toward the rear gallery. There, I spied three flight attendants sitting on the boxes and playing the game of UNO while most of passengers were catching forty winks across the United States. I asked them if I could join the game, which they gladly obliged. Since I sat next to the drawers, I often helped out with drinks and snacks when the passengers came to ask. The flight attendants gave me a little wing medal and designated me as the honourary flight attendant.

We had so much fun playing the game of UNO that we didn’t notice how much time had passed. I thanked them for the game of UNO and for the honourary status.

So the bottom line: the flight attendants could make or break our flying experience the same way the waiters can do for our dining experience. Sometimes, we get lucky with crew of sunny disposition. Sometimes not.

Hey Oliver!

That is a really cool story — thank you for sharing.

David | AirlineReporter

Joe Cullen

Hello Oliver,

I had a similar experience a long, long time ago. My dad was an Air Force officer and we were off to Germany in 1957. The first leg of the journey was a non-stop United Airlines DC-7 flight from Los Angeles to New York. It was an overnight flight, and after dinner my mom tucked my sister and brothers into bed (pillows, blankets, reclining seats) and I went up front for my cockpit visit. In those days you got to sit in the right seat and put your hands on the yoke. I got a pair of junior pilot wings and was so excited that I couldn’t sleep, so my dad took me to the lounge in the back of the plane where we played Hearts with a couple of pretty stewardesses. I was nine years old, and while this was not my first flight it was the one that made me fall in love with air travel. David thinks I am deranged because I like United Airlines, but every time I fly United I remember that flight and how much I have enjoyed flying with them. I have a great story about a round-trip New York-London Pan Am 707 trip I took in 1968 where I got the kids’ tour of the cockpit and a pair of junior clipper wings, even though I was twenty! That story is really long!

Thank you for the great story. It is a reminder that great crews make a huge difference in the experience.

Joe Cullen
Denver, CO

Phoenix

> It is a reminder that great crews make a huge difference in the experience.

So very very true. Airlines, if you’re reading this, pleeeease treat your employees well!

I think we can see evidence with Alaska, Delta, and Southwest treating their employees better (on average) than others and they have higher customer service scores. The two are for sure related!

David | AirlineReporter

Christine

What a wonderful story!

Phoenix

Alrighty. Please stop me if I’m smoking too much crack, but I’m getting two interpretations out of this article:

1) A parody of all the other frequent flier blogs who expound on frequent flier program value (“I only redeemed 60000 points, transferred x points at 1:3 from my palladium credit card, got my fees waived, AND got to keep my ultra-gold status!”), fly only the upper-crust classes, and nitpick about the top-1% problems (“no noise cancelling headphones AND the tray table squeaked. Terrible flight!”)

2) A soliloquy on the uniformity and ‘blandness’ of back-of-the-bus flying. Both to placate the ‘do an economy class review of xx’ catcalls and to illustrate the fact most airlines are converging towards some common denominator “product”.

So is it door #1 or #2? Half of one, 2/3 or the other? Or am I reading way too much into this?

Hey Phoenix,

I think you nailed it with #2. I don’t do miles often, so #1 doesn’t really apply to me. I think people assume that all we do is fly in luxurious accommodations all the time — which is not true. Yes, VERY cool when we do get to do that, but we get plenty of experience in the back too. I will write a review when there is a unique angle, but there are rarely any angles of new stories/reviews that we haven’t already said in previous stories.

David | AirlineReporter

Phoenix

Good to know. Thanks David.

Not that I don’t enjoy reading category #1 (One Mile At A Time, I admit, is quite entertaining) but those bloggers sometimes tend to sound whiny and self-centred. If I ever score a J or F ticket I would be enjoying the daylights out of that flight, no complaints.

Like this dude: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh-WL95QbRk. Dancing in my semi-enclosed cubicle seat? Heck yeah!

Fingers-crossed airlines start upgrading Y, even piecemeal things here and there and you start setting themselves apart from the competition. Which good folks like you get to spread the word on!

Thanks again and all the best. Love your writing.

Thanks Phoenix! It is important for me to keep flying in economy to keep perspective. But, if I was a person who could drop $3000-7000 on business or $10000-20000 on first, I would probably be pretty particular too. Either way, I still enjoy any premium experience that I can!

David | AirlineReporter

EuropeanGuy

Thank you for your review. But it seems, that American air travel seems way worse than European air travel. I fly frequently from Zurich and Copenhagen Airport (both with 26+ million passengers a year). Both the same size and they are marvelous. Honestly, the longest I have waited for a security check was 15 minutes. It is pretty common in Zurich to actually just walk up and being screened instantly. Sometimes you get stressed to unpack everything because the line moves so quickly. And when I think about Montréal Airport (with 14+ Million passengers a year) where I had to wait a solid 40 Minutes for security…well, I am not jealous of the Canadian and US air travelers.

Hey EuropeanGuy,

I would agree with your assessment — traveling in the US is worse. I think some of the economy products with some European airlines are on par with the US, but the whole experience is worse. The parts that I like the least are not from the airlines, but others parts (*COUGH* TSA *COUGH*)

David | AirlineReporter

Jonathan

I flew in and out of DTW and immigration, customs and TSA staff seemed pleasant and efficient. I guess it depends where you are and when. It took 45 minutes to get through the UK border at LGW the other evening but sometimes there’s no wait at all. Mysterious.

Would love to see from you a comparison of economy class in the various airlines. For example, I find AA seats to be SO hard. Whereas Alaska’s are less so. We all prioritize different things, and I’d love to see the various aspects that you notice.

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